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Immunotherapy for metastatic breast cancer

Start Year: 2017
Finish Year: 2018
Chief Investigator: Dr Simon Junankar
Grant Type: Innovator Grant
Institution: Garvan Institute of Medical Research

The main cause of death from breast cancer is when it spreads to other parts of the body such as the brain, bones and liver. This metastatic stage of the disease can be treated to prolong life, but as yet no treatments are curative.

An exciting emerging area of research called immunotherapy may have the answer. Immunotherapy works by making the cancer visible to the body’s immune system so it can seek out and destroy cancer cells. Promising results have already been seen in metastatic melanoma, however to date immunotherapies have had limited success treating breast cancer patients.

Dr Simon Junankar
Dr Simon Junankar

NBCF-funded Dr Simon Junankar and his team are seeking to understand the one of the fundamental questions in cancer – how cancer cells avoid detection by the body’s immune system. They believe this knowledge could provide an explanation for why immunotherapy for breast cancer is not yet successful.

The researchers will use a cutting-edge DNA barcoding technique that tracks individual cancer cells through the body to the organ in which they settle. They are looking to see if the cancer cell will create a metastatic tumour, how the cancer cells respond to immunotherapy, and specifically if they are resistant to immunotherapy.

This DNA barcoding technique can determine if the cancer cells were resistant to therapy from the beginning or if the therapy prompts the development of resistance. This information will help determine the best combinations of immunotherapies for effectively treating metastatic breast cancer and eliminating cancer cells from the body.

Activating the patient’s own immune system early could ultimately prevent metastatic disease developing, dramatically reducing deaths from breast cancer.

The study is focused on two common subtypes of breast cancer which means the findings will be applicable to the majority of breast cancer patients. If successful, the study paves the way for breast cancer immunotherapy clinical trials in the not too distant future.